We know Shake Milton has been the starting point guard and Ben Simmons the starting power forward at the Sixers’ practices in Disney World. If the Sixers move forward with this new-look lineup when play resumes, that of course means Al Horford would be a bench player. But how exactly will the veteran the team signed to a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed be used?
It’s an important question, and one we don’t yet have a clear answer for. We know Horford will be part of a lineup alongside Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Tobias Harris that Brown intends to have in his rotation.
Outside of that, things appear up in the air.
I think if you went back … and you looked at that Clippers game right before the All-Star break happened,” Brown said Saturday, “it would be a decent reference point to consider of maybe it looks like this. One of the groups that we haven’t done since we’ve been down here is pair Al and Joel up together. … I’ve sort of segmented how I want this to unfold here in Orlando. And we go for four days, we get a day off, we go for three days, we get a day off, we go for another few days, we get a day off. In that chunked-up world ... I’m going through, ‘Well, what are the rotations?’ And a part of your question is that will obviously be one of them.
“The Clippers game is a very good reference point to what I’m trying to explain, and then at that point you’re going to feel out what’s best for the team. I think that Al to date, when I watch him get up and down the floor and just his intelligence defensively, you’re again reminded of all the great things he can do. As far as what that ultimately means in relation to, ‘OK, well, how many minutes is he going to play? Is he going to end the game? Is he going to start the game?’ That for sure is fluid, and happy to share when it happens when we start looking closely at Al and Joel together again.
That’s a long way of Brown explaining he’s still figuring things out. While it’s interesting that Horford and Embiid hadn’t played together in the team’s first few practices in Orlando, it doesn’t necessarily signify anything definitive. The note about the Clippers game, however, is helpful in understanding Brown’s approach and what he might be taking under consideration.
Milton wasn’t in the Sixers’ rotation for that Feb. 11 victory, which was Horford’s first game off the bench as a Sixer. Horford ended up only making two more bench appearances before the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, shifting back into the starting lineup following Simmons’ back injury. Furkan Korkmaz started and was scoreless in 23 minutes against the Clippers, while Horford played 28 minutes as the team’s sixth man and had nine points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Perhaps most significantly, he shared the floor with Embiid for just a little under nine minutes, below his season average of 13.7.
The defining feature of the game was the effectiveness of the Embiid-Simmons pairing, a duo Brown praised during the Sixers’ first week back at practice. Embiid and Simmons each scored 26 points that night and had success teaming up with high-lows and snug pick-and-rolls. They played 25 minutes with each other.
Embiid only played 28 minutes overall, a number that should increase during the playoffs as long as he’s healthy. Brown doubled down last week on his “ambitious” target for Embiid’s postseason minutes per game being about 38.
So, if Embiid was to play 10 more minutes than he did on Feb. 11, what would that mean for Horford? It certainly looks like he could play under 28 minutes a night in the postseason, especially if the Simmons-Embiid duo flourishes the way the Sixers hope.
And, if lineups with Horford and Embiid continue to struggle — as a reminder, the team’s net rating with them on the court is the worst of any Sixers two-man pairing with at least 300 minutes together — there’d be another compelling reason to lessen Horford’s playing time. The Sixers will surely still be searching for signs that Embiid and Horford can play together, even if what we’ve seen to this point is not encouraging.
Regardless, Horford’s contract is irrelevant in deciding how the Sixers can give themselves the best chance to win playoff games. If it’s Horford playing about 28 minutes per game as both a backup to Embiid and solid frontcourt mate in certain lineups, that would be great for the Sixers. That might not be tenable, though, and Brown wants to see more before making a determination.
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